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Thursday, June 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Justices Shelve Interim District Maps for Texas

(CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday vacated interim redistricting maps drawn for the 2012 elections in Texas, finding that those who made the maps should have taken guidance from the state's plan, which failed to get preclearance in Washington.

Texas is one of nine states that as a whole must receive preclearance of their redistricting plans from either the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, according to section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

After a panel of Washington judges would not grant summary judgment to approve Texas' redistricting maps for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Texas House of Representatives and the state Senate, a panel in the Western District of Texas had to craft interim plans for the approaching 2012 election cycle.

Though one member of the panel dissented, the majority adopted three interim plans. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court took up Texas' appeal and stayed the interim plans. In its decision Friday, the unanimous court vacated the Western District of Texas' interim maps, which the Legislature said "were unnecessarily inconsistent with the state's enacted plans."

Texas needs new maps because the 2010 census reflected a population boom of more than four million new residents. In addition to redrawing the electoral districts for the U.S. Congress, the state Senate and the state House of Representatives, Texas had to create four new congressional seats.

"Where shifts in a state's population have been relatively small, a court may need to make only minor or obvious adjustments to the state's existing districts in order to devise an interim plan," the Supreme Court's unsigned decision states.

"But here the scale of Texas' population growth appears to require sweeping changes to the state's current dis­tricts. In areas where population shifts are so large that no semblance of the existing plan's district lines can be used, that plan offers little guidance to a court drawing an interim map. The problem is perhaps most obvious in adding new congressional districts: The old plan gives no suggestion as to where those new districts should be placed. In addition, experience has shown the difficulty of defining neutral legal principles in this area, for redistrict­ing ordinarily involves criteria and standards that have been weighed and evaluated by the elected branches in the exercise of their political judgment."

Texas faces a slew of criticism that its redistricting plan is a product of "conscious racial gerrymandering." But the Supreme Court noted that courts must rely on the state's plan for guidance to avoid making "otherwise standardless decisions."

"Section 5 prevents a state plan from being implemented if it has not been precleared," the 11-page decision states. "But that does not mean that the plan is of no account or that the policy judgments it reflects can be disregarded by a district court drawing an interim plan. On the contrary, the state plan serves as a starting point for the district court. It provides important guidance that helps ensure that the district court appro­priately confines itself to drawing interim maps that comply with the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, without displacing legitimate state policy judgments with the court's own preferences."

"Because the District Court here had the benefit of a recently enacted plan to assist it, the court had neither the need nor the license to cast aside that vital aid," the justices added.

Justice Clarence Thomas authored a one-paragraph concurring opinion that slams section 5 of the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional. Since the Legislature's maps have not been found to violate any law, they should govern the upcoming election, Thomas said.

In a 44-page opinion released Dec. 22, the panel of Washington federal judges explained that "Texas misjudged which districts offer its minority citizens the ability to elect their preferred candidates." It would not say, however, whether the state intentionally discriminated against minority voters.

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